Passive vs. active research

Walking The Course

by

Lisa Deon

Today I’m blogging about what I call passive vs. active research when writing, and why each has benefits and drawbacks.

Prior to the start of a competition, some participants (golf, equestrienne jumping, etc) engage in an exercise known as “walking the course”. This is to familiarize them with the field of play; scoping out the lay of the land, so to speak. This way, when faced with an obstacle, they can visualize what is around or beyond it, which helps them determine the tactic to use to complete the event. I will often do this when researching a location for a story or scene.

This is active research.

Author Lisa Deon

I wanted to research a character drowning during a flash flood in a slot canyon. I could have easily use the internet for that; there was a group of tourists who drowned in central Utah during such an event several years ago, but something told me that I needed to see for myself. So when my family was vacation in an area with that particular geological feature, my spouse and I walked through one. I described the scene to him, and after looking the area over, his comment was, “I’d expect someone would die of blunt force trauma before drowning. It would be easy to get your head bashed in on the rocks.” That comment made me change an earlier scene, because prior to his drowning the antagonist gets whapped upside the head with a rock by the heroine. This was a case of active research giving the story credibility.

An old adage among authors is to “Write what you know”, which to me seems like mostly great advice because then you don’t have to do as much research of any kind, passive or active. But let’s face it, active research can only go so far; for some things you’re going to have to fake it. Death is a great example. It’s not recommended to actually die in order to write your experience. It leaves a lot to be desired as far as finishing a project is concerned, not to mention erasing any possibilities of a sequel. So, don’t go to extremes in your active research.

However, sometimes you have to be committed. A few years ago, I got a tattoo. I did it because a character in my book had one and I decided that I might want to include the experience as part of the story. As it turns out, I did not. I had no reason to describe the tiny needles biting into the fleshy part of my arm, or the buzzing sound the machine made. Or the total awkwardness of sitting in a shop listening to angry sounding thrash/speed metal while a man young enough to be my son had me contort my upper body in pretzel-like positions while wearing sterile black gloves. When I researched getting a tattoo, and by “research”, I mean, “asked all my friends who had tattoos”, I was warned of some of these sensations. Still I felt compelled to undergo the procedure myself. The pain was, to me, minimal: “Like moderate sunburn,” my tattoo buddies explained it. Afterwards, I would concur with their assessments. and thought the whole thing was a wash.

Until it started to heal and I was hit with constant itching.

Believe me, I don’t advocate that someone writing a story experience everything the characters in whose head they are living does. Along with a tattoo, the heroine in The Carriage Trade has brain damage and an amputated foot. I’m not going out to actively seek those things just so I can write from experience. I have the ability to talk to folks who have aphasia issues, and an active imagination. But here is where doing active research comes in handy— of all the descriptions given to me by experienced ink people, it was always the pain of receiving the tat which they volunteered, never the aftermath. I can take pain like a champ, but it was the constant itching while the skin healed that drove me absolutely nuts. It took every ounce of restraint I had to refrain from grabbing a fork and scratching that puppy until I was sighing with relief, but now I know that itching is an issue, and can possibly use that little gem of information another time.

Now I walk the course when I’m able and as long as it’s round trip, and not just one way, because you never know what information you might pick up that makes you sound like you know what you’re writing about.

Blurb of Lisa Deon’s The Carriage Trade

How do you get to a “Happily Ever After” when you
can’t remember where it began?
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Carlin “Carlos” Farley’s life is an open
book. Unfortunately, she can’t remember most of it. She’s losing her barn
manager, Bill, the guy who’s been running her horse drawn carriage business
while she’s been in extended care recovering from an accident. Bill has always
been there for her, in fact they’ve grown up together, but now he wants to
pursue the career he put on hold and Carlin’s resigned to the idea that he’s
leaving her


Bill Fantazma is the kind of guy who always tries
to do the right thing. But sometimes doing the right thing is not the right
thing to do. He’s been in charge of Carlin’s care and the business he helped
acquire for her, and has accepted the accident and her subsequent brain damage
as a chance for a do-over, since his previous actions to attract her affection
were less than honorable.

Richard Cooper appears to be the answer to their
business problems. 


Knowledgeable about horses, willing to step in and
take over the barn manager position, helpful and solicitous to Carlin, he’s not
put off by her sometimes bizarre and quirky behavior.


But when Richard sees an opportunity to move in
and draw Carlin’s affection, Bill realizes just what she means to him and must
make a decision; come clean about their past and risk her anger, or step away to
allow Richard to have a romantic relationship with the woman Bill has loved all
of his life. 


It’s a romance she can’t remember and he can never forget.
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